Utah defense has visions of domination, again
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The Utah defense has a goal every practice - force four turnovers and take one back for a score. The theory is simple, if turnover margin is one of the greatest predictors of success, then the Utes want to be masters of the takeaway.
''Our standards are extremely high,'' Utah linebacker Jared Norris said. ''We were a good defense last year and we expect to be a better defense this year. The 4-and-1 thing, it's obtainable. A lot of people think that it's not, but you practice how you play. So if we're practicing to get four turnovers, that's what we expect in the game.''
Utah is coming off its most successful season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The conference record had been trending in the wrong direction each year with four wins in 2011, three in 2013 and two in 2013. The Utes broke through last season with a 5-4 Pac-12 record and nine total wins for the first time since 2010.
The Utes credited their aggressive defense, which led the nation with 55 sacks, for the success. That unit returns eight starters, including six of the front seven that heavily pressured quarterbacks last season. Defensive linemen Hunter Dimick, Lowell Lotulelei, Jason Fanaika and linebackers Jason Whittingham, Norris and Gionni Paul combined for 337 tackles and 24 sacks. Norris' 116 tackles ranked No. 3 in the Pac-12.
The defense is using the term ''zero defect'' to sum up the overall goal - no defects or weaknesses in their game.
''Our pass rush is big, it gets on you quick,'' coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''That's a pretty salty front seven. Tough to run against because they're so physical. Tough to throw against because they get up the field and rush the passer.''
Other things to watch at Utah during 2015:
QUARTERBACK CONUNDRUM: The Utes return three-year starter Travis Wilson, but that doesn't necessarily bring the comfort that normally comes with an experienced senior starter.
Wilson cut his interceptions to a career-low five last season, but he still lost the job to Kendal Thompson twice. He may not have gotten it back if not for Thompson being hurt in his second start.
Wilson is the No. 1 in camp and Whittingham has said the job is Wilson's to lose. The competition, however, remains wide open with Thompson healthy and pushing for the job permanently. The quarterbacks have been inconsistent during camp and the Utes need improved play from the position to keep defenses from loading up against Devontae Booker and the run game.
RUNNING DOWNHILL: Booker's 1,512 rushing yards in 2014 were the second most in school history by seven yards.
And that was after just 31 combined carries in the first three games.
Booker posted 178 yards on 24 carries in game No. 4 and officially became the focal point of the offense. Many expect Booker to be a Heisman candidate in 2015 and he'll get every opportunity to put up gaudy numbers. But he won't catch anyone off guard and needs a serviceable passing game to keep teams from loading up the box.
INHERENTLY DIFFICULT: The Utes are still looking to gain respect throughout the conference - as evidenced by Utah being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South.
The media poll isn't only a reflection of Utah's reputation, but a product of residing in what may be the most competitive division of the Power Five conferences.
USC, Arizona State and UCLA are all considered contenders to win the conference. And any Pac-12 champion gives itself a shot at a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Arizona won the South division last season. Five of the six division members finished 2015 ranked in the final AP Top 25. The Southeastern Conference West is probably the only deeper division in the country.
SPECIAL SPECIAL TEAMS: Whittingham's teams always emphasize special teams and 2015 should be no different.
Most important are the two kickers - punter Tom Hackett and placekicker Andy Phillips.
Hackett was an All-American who won the Ray Guy award given to the nation's top punter. Phillips' 82.1 field goal percentage ranked No. 18 in the nation last season and he was named first team all-conference.